…on the traces of Nubian goldsmithing: Gold bezels and goldsmiths

Still on the traces of Nubian goldsmiths, I would like to share some thoughts about a fascinating type and a goldsmith technique common in modern jewellery but already used and widespread in Kerma time: the gold bezel.

Fig. 1: String of carnelian and amethyst beads with a blue-glazed steatite scarab pendant set in gold bezel (K1053) (photo: Markowitz, Doxey, 2014).

Significant for the study of local gold working in Nubia is a scarab necklace with gold bezel from tomb K1053 at Kerma (Fig. 1), dating to the Classic Kerma Period (c. 1700-1550 BCE). This string is composed of carnelian and amethyst beads of different shapes and typologies and a beautiful blue-glazed steatite scarab pendant set in an accurate gold bezel. According to Markowitz, the gold bezel was added and created by Nubian goldsmiths to emphasize the high rank and role of its owner (Markowitz, Doxey, 2014). The elite individual (Body D) of the Classic Kerman subsidiary grave K1053 was a Kerman woman buried with typical personal adornments, such as a silver headdress, a leather skirt with silver beaded drawstring, a necklace of blue-glazed crystal ball beads, a double set of gold armlets and bracelets on her upper and lower arms and this fascinating gold bezel scarab necklace held in her hand (Minor, 2018) (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Line drawing of placement of K1053 body D, associated burial goods and the gold bezel scarab string (Su. 1094) (photo: Minor, 2018).

Other interesting gold bezel scarabs are attested from Kerma: a blue-glazed steatite scarab back covered with gold plate (K X B, western part, Body XK); a scarab with gold back-cover and two carnelian sphinxes amulets (K 439, Body B); an uninscribed amethyst scarab uninscribed with a gold mounting (K IV B, Body J) (Reisner, 1923, pp. 198-228-305).

Really fascinating traces of a specific typology of gold bezel come from the heart scarab (SAC5 349) of the goldsmith Khnummose, found with his body in the Tomb 26 (Chamber 6) at Sai Island (New Kingdom, mid-18th Dynasty) (Budka, 2021). This inscribed serpentinite heart scarab, discovered by our PI Julia Budka and her AcrossBorders’ Team (read here more on this extraordinary discovery!), was found in situ with gold foil remains. During the process of cleaning, fragile strips of gold were found close to the head of the scarab and only one piece was clearly attached around the base, suggesting the presence of a bezel, most likely made with a very fine gold leaf. Indeed, the largest gold fragment has a large hole pierced through it, probably connected to the holes of the scarab (Budka, 2021) (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Heart Scarab of Khnummose (SAC5 349) in situ with gold foil remains (photo: courtesy J. Budka).

…and if you missed Kate’s post on the 3D reproduction of this heart scarab, hurry up and read it! https://www.sudansurvey.gwi.uni-muenchen.de/index.php/2022/12/06/diverseniles-explorations-in-3d-printing-ancient-nubian-objects/

The heart scarabs were occasionally enclosed in gold mountings in Egyptian jewellery during the New Kingdom, manufactured through the use of two main techniques: the lost wax or the welding of two separate pieces of a gold sheet (Andrews, 1994; Schäfer, Möller, Schubart, 1910). Both are still used in modern jewellery; the second technique allows the creation of a particular type of bezel exclusively used for heart scarabs. It’s a gold bezel that not only holds the base of the scarab but is characterized by a T-cage that supports the funerary amulet along the part of the scarab body called elytra (the closed wings), following their shape (Fig. 4). These gold bezel heart scarabs were hung from a gold chain or tourques through a suspension loop welded on the upper part of the bezel or the perforated scarab and bezel. Excellent examples are dated to the 18th Dynasty: the serpentinite and gold heart scarab of Neferkhawet (MMA 729), early 18th Dynasty, Thebes, Asasif (Fig. 5); the green schist and gold heart scarab of Maruta (Tomb of the Three Foreign Wives of Thutmose III), 18th Dynasty, Thebes, Wadi Gabbanat el-Qurud (Fig. 6); the green jasper and gold heart scarab of Djehuty, 18th Dynasty, Saqqara (Andrews, 1994; Budka, 2021).

Fig. 4: Scarab drawing (photo: Andrews, 1994).
Fig. 5: Heart scarab of Neferkhawet (photo: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/545166).
Fig. 6: Heart scarab of Maruta (photo: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/548642).

Coming back to Tomb 26, the family tomb of goldsmith Khnummose, there was also an exceptional steatite scarab ring in gold and silver (SAC5 388) of the 18th Dynasty (Budka, 2021) (Fig. 7). It was discovered with the female Individual 324. Among her bodily adornment, there was also an interesting necklace with carnelian and bone crocodile pendants and beads in different materials, such as gold (exactly 180 beads!). The finger ring has a heavy gold setting, most likely made by wax carving and lost wax techniques. The shank of the ring is in silver, while its small domed caps are gilded. The thin gold wire threads through the scarab, the gold bezel and the gilded caps twisting on both sides of the ring and finally fixed in small holes drilled in the silver shank (for an accurate description of these and other beautiful finds from the Tomb 26 do not forget you can find the complete book here https://www.sidestone.com/books/tomb-26-on-sai-island).

Fig. 7: Gold and silver scarab ring (SAC5 388), Tomb 26, Sai Island (photo: Budka, 2021).

The gold bezel seems to be a distinctive feature of the Nubian jewellery, but additionally, these bezels from Sai come from the tomb of a local goldsmith and his family. Khnummose held two titles: “goldworker/goldsmith” and “overseer of goldworkers” (Auenmüller, 2020; Budka, 2021).

Even if with a less sophisticated mounting than the typology of the gold and silver ring from the Tomb 26, another intriguing comparison comes from Aniba and two scarab rings (n.34, n.36; see Budka, 2021, 212). The moving bezel is fixed to the ring by a thin metal wire that passes through the scarab, twisting on both sides of the ring. The ring n.34 is in silver, while the n.36 is in bronze (Steindorff, 1937, 111, pl. 57, nos. 34 and 36).

During the New Kingdom, the scarab mounted in gold remained the most common design for finger rings (Wilkinson, 1971). This technique, the mounting of the gold bezel, characterized by different methods (Maryon, 1971), appears already among the “innovations” of the Middle Kingdom goldsmithing. The first scarab rings were made from a single wire. From the 13th Dynasty the ends of the ring were equipped with grommets through which passed the wire that held the perforated stone. However, friction between the stone and the metal frequently led to shredding, therefore goldsmiths started to create “a metal protection” for the stone: the bezel (Schäfer, Möller, Schubart, 1910).

It has been suggested that the Egyptians adopted this goldsmithing typology and technique from a foreign people, perhaps from the Mycenaean culture where these rings were used (Schäfer, Möller, Schubart, 1910). However, the gold bezels found at Kerma, used as pendants/amulets rather than rings, but also the later examples from Sai, could attest to a local Nubian typology and manufacturing, the possible influence or technology transfer between Egypt and Nubia and the use of different techniques and specific tools already during Kerma times and through the New Kingdom.


Andrews C., 1994, Amulets of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press, London.

Auenmüller J., 2020, Nubisches Gold und ägyptische Präsenz: Pharaonische Goldgewinnung in der Nubischen Wüste, in: M. Kasper, R. Rollinger, A. Rudigier& K. Ruffing (eds.), Wirtschaften in den Bergen. Von Bergleuten, Hirten, Bauern, Künstlern, Händlern und Unternehmern, Montafoner Gipfeltreffen 4, Wien, 37–54.

Budka J., 2021, Tomb 26 on Sai Island. A New Kingdom elite tomb and its relevance for Sai and Beyond, Sidestone Press, Leiden.

Markowitz Y., Doxey D. M., 2014, Jewels of Ancient Nubia, MFA Publications, Boston.

Maryon H., 1971, Metalwork & Enamelling, Dover Publications Inc, New York.

Minor E., 2018, Decolonizing Reisner: a case study of a Classic Kerma female burial for reinterpreting Early Nubian archaeological collections through digital archival resources, Nubian Archaeology in the XXIST century, Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Conferencefor Nubian Studies, Neuchâtel, 1st-6th September 2014, PEETERS, LEUVEN – PARIS – BRISTOL, CT, 251–262.

Reisner G.A., 1923, Excavations at Kerma, Parts I-III,Joint Egyptian Expedition of Harvard University and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard African Studies 5, Cambridge.

Schäfer H., Möller G., Schubart W., 1910, Äegyptische Goldschmiedearbeiten, Verlag Von Karl Curtius, Berlin.

Steindorff G., 1937, Aniba. Zweiter Band. Service des Antiquites de l’Egypte. Mission archeologique de Nubie 1929-1934. Glückstadt: Augustin.

Wilkinson A., 1971, Ancient Egyptian Jewellery, London.

Working on cultural diversity in Upper Nubia during the lockdown

These are challenging times – for everybody, for many groups more than others (just think of the heroes in hospitals, schools, kindergarten and supermarkets as well as many other places and the awful situation for everybody involved in gastronomy, tourism and culture). We as archaeologists are more or less well prepared for doing much of our work from home. Spending weeks and moths per year in the field, often stuck on an island somewhere, we are also used to a certain kind of isolation.

However, there are of course real problematic issues for us we are currently facing. First of all, of course going to the field in Sudan and Egypt – nothing that is possible at the moment and also planning our next season in the MUAFS concession is still extremely difficult because of the pandemic. Second, our teaching activities are restricted to online formats. Whereas this works without problems for lecture classes and seminars, our planned block seminar “Introduction to field archaeology” where we wanted to have various practical training for our participants would need to be completely revised as an online format. We have postponed it for now, hoping that it might be possible in March – I remain skeptical (or realistic?) since the extension of the lockdown in Munich is very likely, but let’s wait and see. Third, working at home and taking shifts in working in the office to secure isolation and limited risks for everybody is currently without alternative, but I miss having the complete team present and exchanging in a casual way.

Well – as archaeologists we are trained to be patient, and all will be better somewhen!

For now, I wanted to give a small update on our work progress. Everybody of the team is busy with several work tasks within the work packages – much efforts are currently spent by Giulia and Veronica on databases, by Jessica on enlarging our digital library and by Cajetan on various aspects of remote sensing. Rennan was busy with his PhD viva at Cambridge which he passed very successfully and now continues with collecting data useful to approach the mortuary archaeology of the MUAFS concession.

It was very silent from my side as PI and this with good reasons – it is the end of the teaching term, there’s a lot of administration keeping me busy and most importantly: I tried to finish a monograph about Tomb 26 on Sai Island in the last months. This process has taken quite some time and actually benefitted from the lockdown and that I was unable to leave Europe over the winter. This book is now almost ready and I could easy repeat what I had written in 2018 about the merits and flaws of preparing archaeological publications, especially about crazy working hours and panic attacks. And about the feeling of being overwhelmed when you know exactly that the really important things in life are neglected but you can’t help it – partner, family, friends and pets suffer and need to be very patient and supportive (or bribed in the case of animals). Friends and family got used to my slightly bizarre answers on the phone “yes, all is fine, I am still in my tomb, can we speak later?” and for this I am very grateful! Interestingly, there was not much difference between the last months in lockdown and the final book preparation period back in 2018. The results of isolation are just the same, with more silence in the office and maybe with the slight difference that I could not meet friends now, even if I could spare the time.

For the DiverseNile project, preparing the AcrossBorders publications is hugely relevant. There are so many aspects we will be able to compare with sites in our new concession which are after all located in the ‘periphery’ of Sai Island. Tomb 26 is one of the Egyptian style pyramid tombs on Sai where the local elite was buried. We had more than 36 burials in this monument and we are now able to reconstruct in detail the life history of the tomb and its users. Although the burial assemblages like the one of Khnummose follow Egyptian standards, there are also certain local markers and individual concepts which I describe in the forthcoming book. We assume that none of the users of Tomb 26 was actually coming from Egypt, all of them are belonging to the local elite with indigenous roots. Interestingly, we also have some Nubian features, especially traceable by the choice of ceramics and bodily adornment.

The probably best example is a young female who was buried with an ivory bracelet in Tomb 26 (Fig. 1). This bracelet was badly damaged and broken, but its find position over the ulna of the individual allowed a clear interpretation. Similar bracelets are known from several New Kingdom sites in Nubia (e.g. Buhen, Mirgissa and Fadrus) and can be regarded as typical ‘Nubian’.

In situ position of ivory bracelet in Tomb 26 on Sai (photo: J. Budka).

Overall, Tomb 26 on Sai Island illustrates as a case study the potential of investigating the variability of funerary practices within a common repertoire of burial customs adopted from Egyptian standards as being rooted in distinct social practices. One of the main tasks for the near future within the framework of the DiverseNile project is, therefore, to determine the degree of diversity not only in elite contexts such as the pyramid cemetery on Sai but also in social groups not belonging to the elite of New Kingdom Nubia in order to achieve a more comprehensive picture of past communities in the Middle Nile region. Our cemeteries in the Attab to Ferka region will allow us to make here considerable progress in the next years, especially because of our joint approach using both funerary and settlement records to reconstruct past communities.